Victims of child abuse may experience changes in their brains similar to those seen in soldiers, according to a new, small study.
The findings, published in the December 6 issue of Current Biology, is the first to use functional brain scans to examine the effects of abuse on children's emotional development.
"This research...provides our first clues as to how regions in the child's brain may adapt to early experiences of abuse," lead author Eamon McCrory of Britain's University College London told Reuters.
McCrory and his colleagues observed brain responses in 43 12-year-old children to pictures of male and female calm, angry and sad faces. The 20 children in the study who had been abused at home showed more activity in two regions of the brain that are involved in detecting threats. The brains of soldiers who have been exposed to violent combat show similar patterns in these areas, according to Reuters.
The findings suggest that abused children and combat soldiers "tune their brains to be hyper-aware of environmental danger," reports The Daily Mail.
This may keep children out of harm's way in the short term, McCrory said in a press release. But given that childhood abuse is one of the most common precursors to mental illness, these brain changes may also set the stage for anxiety and depression later in life.
Of course, not every child will face these mental health challenges. In fact, "many bounce back and lead successful lives," McCrory told The Daily Mail. "We want to know much more about those mechanisms that help some children become resilient."
Doing so may lead to new treatments to help the victims of child abuse. Until then, Peter Fonagy, a psychology professor at UCL who was not involved in the study, told The Daily Mail, "the report should energize clinicians and social workers to double their efforts to safeguard children from violence."
The study is not the first to link maltreatment during childhood to mental illness later in life. Previous research has tied abuse to personality disorders, anxiety disorders, social isolation, relationship problems and suicidal behavior, among other mental health problems. Victims of child abuse may also face physical health problems, such as an increased risk of heart attack, heart disease and stroke, according to findings presented in November at the American Heart Association's 2011 scientific sessions.